With these inspiring words, Saint Gregory of Nazianz (d. 390) began his famous sermon On the Nativity, which was later incorporated into the Canon of the Nativity by St. Cosmas of Maiuma (d. 760) . We can also trace the origin of our traditional Christmas greeting: Christ is born! Glorify Him! to th is source. Throughout the preNativity period, which in our rite begins on November 21 st, we are given a glimpse of the mystery of the Incarnation as these words solemnly resound in our churches. By them we are also invited to be joyful and to exult as we welcome into our midst Emmanuel, God with us, at Christmas time.
Saint Gregory’s words are a living testimony that already at the end of the fourth century, Christmas was celebrated by the Byzantine Church with special solemnity and rejoicing.
In the Byzantine Litu rgy, the season of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity was developed between the seventh and the ninth centuries-a rather late date. The forty day period of fasting before Christmas, known as the PhilJippian Fast (Filipovka), was established in 1166 A.D. In 1966, however, the Ruthenian Byzantine Hierarchy in the United States was granted a Rescript by the Holy See reducing this period of fasting to two weeks, December 10th to the 24th. During this time, the faithful are exhorted to prepare themselves for the coming of the Saviour and to receive Him in the Holy Eucharist in order to sing more meaningfully “s Nami Boh!” – ” God is with us !”
The two Sundays preceding the Nativity are liturgically connected with the Feast. The first, the Sunday of the Forefathers, is in commemoration of all the holy people of the Old Testament who completely trusted God and patiently awaited the coming of the Messiah. The second, the Sunday of the Fathers, is in commemoration of those members of the genealogy of Christ who became the carriers of the Messianic promises.
The ‘predprazdenstvo” or the pre-festive period of the Nativity is celebrated for five days, December 20th to the 24th. In the liturgical books a strict fast is prescribed for the eve of Christmas to remind us of the hardships and privations of Mary and Joseph before the Nativity. Today, this fasting is optional, but in the spirit of our Rite at least abstinence from meat should be observed.
Characteristic of the Christmas Vigil are The Royal Hours, a liturgical devotion celebrated only three times a year-on the mornings of the Eve of Epiphany and of Good Friday besides the Eve of Christmas. They are called ” royal” because they were celebrated with great solemnity and in the presence of the royal family. Later in the day, the Liturgy of st. Basil the Great with Vespers is celebrated leaving the late afternoon and evening free for the traditional family celebration of “The Holy Supper” (” Svjata Vecherja” ).
2 The Holy Supper requires special preparation and setting. The dining table is lightly strewn with hay or straw and then covered with a white linen. In the middle of the table, a large round loaf of white bread decorated with traditional symbols similar to the Paska of Easter and called the “Krachun” (0. SI. Karachun-nativity) , is placed between two candles which are lit during the dinner. This explains the derivation of our popular name for Christmas, ” Krachun.”
This traditional setting of the Christmas table, devoid of all pagan or superstitious implications, symbolically represents the scene of Bethlehem.
The round white bread represents the newly-born Saviour Who called Himself “the Bread of Life” (In. 6:35) ; the table covered with straw or hay represents the manger in which He was laid ; the white table cloth His swaddling clothes (Lk. 2:7) , and the lighted candle the star of Bethlehem. In arranging the seating, the father as the head of the household is seated at the head of the table and the family is seated around him. Besides the seating for the entire family, there is always one empty seat which is reserved for the unexpected guest for whom, in the spirit of Slavic hospitality, there should always be room (comp. Lk. 2:7).
3 Before the supper begins, the father lights the candle, symbolizing the appearance of the star, and leads the singing of the festive Troparion, “Your birth, 0 Christ our God” (Rozdestvo Tvoje Christe Boze Nas) with the entire family gathered around the table. He then extends his Chri,stmas wishes in words similar to these :
“I greet you with the Feast of Christ’s Nativity and wish that the Infant Jesus shower upon all of you His choicest blessings. May we all live in health, peace, and happiness and may we all celebrate another Christmas together. A Merry and Blessed Christmas! Christ is Born!”
The father then embraces and kisses each member of the family, and as he expresses his wishes for good health and happiness, he shares a piece of bread (prosphora) dipped in honey with them. This sharing of the bread symbolizes the sharing of life with Jesus and the honey represents God’s blessings (comp. Ps. 81 :17), the source of true happiness.
Since the Eve of Christmas is traditionally a fast day, meat or meat products are never served at the Holy Supper. In many places, custom dictates that even dairy products are excluded. The traditional menu always contains meatless dishes but in great variety and prepared with great care. The meatless dishes symbolize the humility and poverty which surrounded the Birth of Christ. The variety and abundance of food represent the variety and abundance of God’s graces.
During the course of the supper, served leisurely and with a certain solemnity, there prevails a joyous atmosphere reminiscent of the angelic message given to the shepherds that first Christmas Eve: ” I bring you news of great joy to be shared by all people. Today, in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, Who is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). Between the servings of the traditional foods, the festive joy is enhanced by the singing of carols, the reminiscings of the family, and the telling of amusing stories. The Holy Supper is concluded with a traditional carol.
A certain after-supper ritual is generally followed consisting of carolling and the opening of gifts. It is not becoming or customary to retire early on Christmas Eve. Emulating the shepherds, all keep watch (Lk. 2:8) and then, just before midnight, all generally go to church to meet Emmanuel, “God with us!”
4 The Christmas tree is also part of the Byzantine Christmas tradition, but it is of more recent origin, finding its way into the home of the Byzantine Catholics from Germany at the turn of the last century. It also brings with it much meaningful symbolism. The evergreen tree reminds us of the eternal life brought to us by Jesus Christ, while the tree decorations remind us of His spiritual gifts and blessings. The exchange of gifts from under the tree expresses our mutual love in imitation of the infinite love of our Heavenly Father Who ” so loved the world (men) that He gave His only Son, so that all those who believe in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life” (In. 3:15-16).
5 Carolling is a centuries long tradition with our people. It was introduced to us from Kiev, as were many other religious customs. In the life of 8t. Vladimir the Great, the Prince of Kiev (980- 1015) carolling is mentioned for the first time. The biographer states that our ancestors ” during the Christmas festivities used to come together and sing joyous songs, commemorating the birth of Christ.” (Nestor the Chronicler) From ancient times, it was a prevalent custom that a group of young people, dressed as angels or shepherds, would carry a model of a star and would visit from house to house to bring joy to the inhabitants (“Dom zveseliti ” ) with their carolling. These are called the Star Carollers.
Also a part of the Christmas tradition of our people are the Bethlehem Carollers. These developed from the Middle Age ” Mystery Plays” (i.e., a religious drama based on the events in the life of Our Lord). Bethlehem is a pious re-enactment of the first Christmas by the shepherds and angels as the actors. Depending on the script, there can be other actors involved such as Herod, the Three Wise Men, the Devil , etc. The center of attraction of this portrayal is a small model church with the Nativity scene displayed inside. It is usually carried by two youngsters dressed as angels and placed on the table of the home visited. Around this church, the drama of the Nativity evolves with its dialogues, carolling, and music. The Bethlehem play usually ends with one of the members of the group extending Yuletide greetings and the singing of ” Mnohaja L’ita” for all the members of the family. For their noble gesture and visit, the carollers are usually rewarded with goodies or monetary gifts.
6 One of the greatest highlights of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is the solemn celebration of the Great Compline with Litija (Povecerije Velikoje).
Long before midnight, at the sound of the first bell inviting the faithful to attend the services, the faithful hu rry to the sol e m n I y decorated church. As they continue to keep watch for the arrival of the hour of the Birth of the Savior, they express their genuine spiritual joy in singing the traditional Christmas carols. Exactly at midnight, all bells begin to peal joyously announcing to the world that the Redeemer is born. The solemn celebration of the Great Compline with Litija begins.
After the somber recitation of the chosen Psalms, suddenly the joyous singing of the Song of Isaiah, “God is with us” (“S nami Boh”) is intoned. The faithful respond with a joy and exultation that fills the church proclaiming the mysterious Birth of the Son of God.
The liturgical hymns and songs of the Litija and the Matins that follow are gems and masterpieces of Byzantine hymnography. They were composed by such great hymnographers as St. Roman the Melodist (d. 560) , St. Sophronius of Jerusalem (d. 644), St. Germanus of Constantinople (d. 733), St. John Damascene (d. 749), St. Cosmas of Maiuma (d. 760), St. Stephen the Sabbait (d. 794) and others. With their inspiring compositions they filled our Christmas Liturgy with a deep sense of mystery, moving poetry, spiritual jubilation and profound gratitude.
The midnight services fittingly close with the solemn singing of the angelic hymn of thanksgiving: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14).
7 With a treasury of traditions such as these, it is no wonder that the Byzantine Rite faithful so earnestly prepare themselves before the great Feast of the Nativity and derive so much joy and spiritual unction in the celebration of the Feast itself.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!